Alta California Guide: San Diego

The laid-back surfer life meets the by-the-book military life, yet somehow it all works together in harmony.

alta california guides, san diego
Michael Schwab

The southern city just above the Mexico border is a lovely place to while away a few days, poking around in windswept lagunas and sea caves or venturing into the surrounding mountains to find your fortune. While still home to active U.S. Marine and Navy outposts, the city in recent decades has become an epicenter for craft beer, modern Mexican food, and funky discoveries far from downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter.

Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave
sunny jim’s sea cave

The entrance to this cave in La Jolla may not look like much, but wait until you step inside. For a small fee, curious onlookers can stagger down 145 creaky stairs through a low, hand-carved tunnel to the final view: a booming sea cave with a peekaboo archway framing the Pacific. It’s a delightful reminder of what a few hand tools (and lots of elbow grease) can create.

Annie’s Canyon Trail
annie's canyon trail

Local hikers love Annie’s Canyon in Solana Beach for its ever-changing terrain and Bryce Canyon worthy slots. Along the route, walkers must squeeze between tall, worn walls and navigate rough, sandy footing, even climbing permanent ladders and carved stairs to experience the nature preserve in full. The result is a workout (with laguna views) in one of the state’s most surprising natural landscapes.

Salvation Mountain
salvation mountain

Seekers and revelers travel for miles to visit Salvation Mountain in the arid desert east of San Diego. The human-made phenomenon is largely the work of Leonard Knight, who took to tiny Niland to spread a message of God and love using little more than mounded dirt and more than half a million gallons of paint.

San Diego Model Railroad Museum
san diego model railroad museum
San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Balboa Park’s San Diego Model Railroad Museum is a bustle of moving parts and hand-painted miniatures. The 27,000-square-foot museum has been open for 40 years and offers some of the most realistic and dedicated model-train layouts anywhere in the country, from painstaking replicas of California rail lines that curve through rocky passes to an exhibition that details the decades-long history of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Museum of History in Granite
museum of history in granite
Museum of History in Granite

In the southeast corner of the state sits this odd museum (circa 1973) dedicated to providing a detailed history of humanity. Cut into granite carved into 100-foot-long triangular blocks, each engraving aims to tell a piece of the story. What’s more, the site features a small chapel on a four-sided hill, along with other pyramids and obelisks that, when taken together, feel like something plucked from another planet.

Eagle Mining Co.
eagle mining co

High in the hills northeast of San Diego, the rustic country town of Julian retains many of its rural roots. The area is rich in winding roads that meander among leafy oak trees, but for true history it’s best to head deep inside the hillsides at Eagle Mining Co., a tourable former gold mine that dates to 1870 and features original mine-shaft knickknacks like tools and working machines. It’s not for the claustrophobic, but you will build up a hearty appetite for a slice of famous Julian apple pie afterward. •

Farley Elliott is the senior editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History from Tamaleros to Taco Trucks.
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